“The Sun Also Rises”
The close of every theatre season in the final week of April sees a mad race by shows to open before the deadline arrives for award considerations (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics, etc., etc.). One of the last to squeak in on time this season is English playwright James Graham’s frequently exciting, if overlong, import, Ink, about the revolution in British journalism created by Australian media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch. It, too, embodies a mad race against time.
|Jonny Lee Miller, Bertie Carvel. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
But the sale allowed no cessation in the paper’s operations, meaning that the entire operation, involving hiring new editors, introducing a new publishing philosophy, and completely altering the rag’s visual appearance, wouldn’t have the necessary months of preparation. Instead, it would have only 24 hours.
|Robert Stanton, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Tara Summers, Eden Marryshow, Andrew Durand, Jonny Lee Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Remarkably, it worked, and Murdoch’s populist strategy—catering to what his rivals claimed were the public’s basest instincts—so successfully reversed the paper’s fortunes that, within a year, its readership overtook that of The Mirror. To get a hint of the direction in which The Sun was taken you need merely glance at the turn-off-your-cellphone reminder inserted in your program, which resembles a front page from the sensationalistic tabloid.
|Program insert for Ink.|
Director Rupert Goold’s strikingly distinctive production was first staged at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2017 before transferring to the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre. Its Broadway version features one of its original stars, Bertie Carvel (Matilda), who plays Murdoch. British actor Jonny Lee Miller takes the role first acted by Richard Coyle, Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born, non-college-educated, working-class journalist he convinces to become The Sun’s new editor. Neither of these gentlemen is hesitant about the use of swear words.
Thirteen actors, some playing only one role, others handling two, and one (Erin Neufer) playing four, cover 22 characters, with a five-actor ensemble filling in the gaps. The two acts of this multiscened, nearly two-hour-and-40-minute play are staged on the expertly crafted set of designer Bunny Christie (who also did the 1969-based costumes) in which a curving cyclorama is used for multiple video projections (by Jon Driscoll), many related to printing and publishing.
Occupying the upstage space is a perfectly concocted skyline of dusky desks and file cabinets, into which are placed platforms on which scenes occur in conjunction with those downstage. There, an elevator trap constantly delivers and removes actors and set pieces from the main acting area.
Tying it all together is the magnificent, multifarious lighting of Neil Austin. An original score of thrumming, thumping music by sound designer Adam Cork adds immeasurably to the production’s rapid pulse, especially when Goold’s direction links a string of rapidly evolving scenes together with the actors moving in precisely choreographed, dance-like business.
In Act One, we see Murdoch—played by Carvel with reptilian smarm, his drawl oily and nasal, his shoulders slightly hunched, and his head protruding forward—talking the at-first reluctant Lamb into being his editor. They discuss what Murdoch calls “a good, fuckin’ story,” which Lamb says must have the five W’s, Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Afterward, the W’s are incorporated into the skyline image.
Murdoch, part of whose mission is to take revenge on those upper-class, establishment newspaper men who consider him that “Aussie sheepherder,” is certain there’s a “new market” waiting for a paper that will appeal to the people by representing, not so much serious reportage, but material that gives them what they want, ranging from gossip to sex. Hoping to disrupt Fleet Street, the heart of British journalism, he insists, “I just want something . . . ‘loud.’”
Lamb, initially hesitant at suggestions that require overturning journalism’s conventional standards, including stealing publishable material, buys in to Murdoch’s ideas. His Faustian bargain sees him become even more ruthless than the occasionally uncomfortable Murdoch in his competitive quest to sell more and more papers.
Acted by Miller with driven, chain-smoking, gruff-voiced intensity, Lamb dashes about town, hiring a motley crew, and sharing ideas with them on content (sex being a principal subject), layouts, and typefaces, while also dealing with the unions and their plethora of acronymic units.
Act One ends with the paper’s successful launch, a promise about its place in building the future, and Murdoch’s imprecation, “Let’s burn it all down, and start again.”
Act Two takes us into The Sun’s first year, beginning with a TV interview (presumably based on one with David Frost) in which he defends his paper from attacks by the Establishment on its sleaziness, pointing out the positive values of its being “fun,” noting the success of its bottom line, insisting that the marketplace represents democracy at work, and making certain negative comments about “outsiders” in England.
This is followed by scenes regarding the paper’s policies and practices, like weekly themes (such, I’m afraid, as “Pussy Week”); its growing circulation; the internecine journalistic war it’s incited; Lamb’s disagreements with Murdoch; the paper’s venture into TV commercials; and the heated competition with The Mirror.
Then comes the most humanly compelling development, the paper’s response to the kidnapping of Muriel McKay (Tara Summers), wife of Sir Alick McKay (Colin McPhillamy), Murdoch’s deputy. The situation, in which Muriel was mistaken for Murdoch’s wife, Anna (Erin Neufer), allegedly was inspired by Murdoch’s TV comments about outsiders.
It turns The Sun itself into the story and causes Murdoch to begin questioning its culpability, only for his impulses to conflict with Larry’s journalistic obsessiveness. An entire play could have been based on this incident but here it becomes only one more episode questioning journalism’s ethical responsibilities.
Even with the circulation boost provided by this story, Larry needs something else to overcome The Mirror before the year is out. He turns again to sex, eschewing the glamour cheesecake he’s already purveyed for more revealing nudity, thus inspiring the scandalous publication of a picture showing the naked Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy), née Kahn, whose famous Page 3 photo from November 17, 1970, is projected on the background.
Do you think Larry’s idea worked? That it made The Sun outsell The Mirror? And what came afterward? For one thing, there’s a scene near the very end when Larry and Murdoch are dining, in a famous restaurant (London’s oldest), with the ironic name Rules. In its course, Murdoch, referencing New York, says: “I’m thinking about buying a TV network over there.”
Ink overextends itself, and could use some editorial trimming. That, however, is not to deny that it remains “a good fuckin’ story.”
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through June 23